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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Wearable Fine Art? A Rochester Artist Uses Footwear As His Canvas

Steve Zind
To date, Rochester artist Rick Skogsberg has painted more than 300 pairs of shoes and boots, each with a unique design. Some will be on display in Miami next month as part of Art Basel in America.

"Found art" involves turning an object created for a utilitarian purpose into art. When that object is part of our everyday lives, the transformation can be surprising — especially so when the object is a pair of shoes.

Rochester artist Rick Skogsberg has spent the past 18 months creating a collection of found art with painted footwear. It's a collection that elicits a "wow" response from people who see it.

Visiting Skogsberg involves climbing the steep narrow stairs leading to an upstairs apartment in Rochester village and squeezing down a hallway stacked with shoeboxes.

At the top of a second set of stairs is a room with walls covered with Skogsberg’s artwork, including dozens of paper plates with intricate hand-painted black and white designs.

But since spring of last year, Skogsberg has been painting nothing but footwear.

“It feels like what I’ve been doing my whole life has prepared me to present these pre-made sculptures, in essence,” he says.

Skogsburg sits on a bed strewn with Ziploc bags and Tupperware containers filled with markers. He chooses one and begins to draw on a plain-looking brown boot he holds in his lap.

Credit Steve Zind / VPR
Skogsberg has thousands of colored Sharpies and paint markers he uses for his designs.

The 68-year-old Skogsberg says this all began innocently enough when he saw an online photo of some Oxford shoes, which he remembered from college. He ordered few pairs. Actually, more than a few.

“Very quickly I had nine pairs of shoes in my size that I’d bought on the internet because I couldn’t help it, I just loved them so much,” he recalls. “My daughter came to visit me and I had to hide half of them in the closet because I didn’t know what I was going to say! Well, nothing can be around me very long without getting drawn on.”

So he started drawing on the shoes, using the markers to create colorful designs on the heels and edges of the soles, then moving up to draw on the leather.   

So far, Skogsberg has painted more than 300 pairs of boots and shoes. Men’s and women’s styles, from newly manufactured retail cast-offs to second hand store bargains.

Credit Steve Zind / VPR
Skogsberg's designs are often intricate, and no two shoes are identical.

Every pair Skogsberg has painted is different, and every shoe or boot in a pair is unique.

The work is meticulous but not planned. He doesn’t use sketches or a premeditated idea. And while the designs are spontaneous, they’re not random.

“I’m trying to make them look like they mean something. All these things are supposed to look like something iconic, a deeply felt sense of something to these marks,” he says.

Some of Skogsberg’s boots have designs reminiscent of natural forms like leaves; others are dizzying bits of psychedelia, or angular patterns that recall native American art. There are nods to different artistic styles from abstract to graffiti art. 

"These are a classic of contemporary fine art,” he says, picking up a finished pair of shoes. “It looks like a bunch of scribbles, but that’s what an urban wall looks like, in fact. Looking like not one graffiti writer but all of them together, including the sanitation department and everything else that’s defaced that wall or whatever it is.”

Credit Steve Zind / VPR
Skosberg says he is often consumed by his work, spending up to 20 hours per day painting footwear.

Skogsberg says these cultural and artistic references make his work something more than decorative.

And while the shoes have been transformed into works of art, they remain functional.

“It’s an undecided question. Is it fine art, or is it wearable art?” he says. “The original idea I had was that people would buy them and wear them ‘til they were really beat. That’s when they would really be fine art.”

Skogsburg says he’s spent much of his life living hand-to-mouth, except for a couple of decent-paying jobs. He studied and wrote poetry and lived for many years at the Quarry Hill Commune in Rochester.

He didn’t really think of himself as an artist until he saw the drawings of R. Crumb and others in Zap Comix in the late 1960s.

“I realized that you didn’t have to be able to draw, so to speak, to do art. So that’s what I took for my thing, was doing non-representational. I call it abstract cartooning,” he says.

Credit Steve Zind / VPR
Skogsberg looks for bargains online and also visits second-hand stores to find boots and shoes.

Skogsberg has never really had a public audience for his work before now. But the reaction to the shoes has been encouraging.

“It was really obvious right from the beginning that it was something special," he says. "It wasn’t just me that loved them. Everybody loved them."

Skogsberg has given away a few dozen examples of his work, but he recently sold a pair for $2,000.

And that may be just the beginning. The shoes will be shown at a prestigious juried exhibition in Miami, Florida next month. It’s part of an annual event called Art Basel in America.

Anni Mackay, the director and owner of Big Town Gallery in Rochester, will be showing Skogsberg’s work in Miami.

Credit Steve Zind / VPR
Skogsberg's work will be exhibited at a prestigious juried exhibition in Miami, Florida next month, as part of an annual event called Art Basel in America.

Mackay says Skogsberg has hit on a unique form that immediately gets people’s attention. After the initial surprise, those who see the shoes discover there’s depth to his work.   

“Sort of channeling art history, in a way. Everything shows up in this," says Mackay. "It has a sort of a street quality to it that is also very appealing, yet it has a beautiful style to it."

Even Skogsberg experiences something of the delight others have felt on seeing his work.

“Look at this. How can you not love that?” he says, displaying yet another pair of painted footwear. “I mean, I love it! It just really knocks me out!”

If the Miami show goes as he hopes, many more people will be responding that way to Skogsberg’s work.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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